Solo Travel: How to Pay Abroad Like a Pro

Traveling abroad can be an exciting and enriching experience, but it can also be challenging, especially when it comes to handling money. Gone are the days when carrying large amounts of cash or traveler’s cheques was the norm. In this modern era, it is crucial for solo travelers to understand and navigate the intricacies of paying abroad.

In this comprehensive guide, we will provide you with invaluable tips on managing your finances, understanding exchange rates, and getting the best exchange rate possible.

Card or Cash – Striking the Right Balance

Today, card payments have become ubiquitous around the world, making it more convenient and secure to pay by card in most situations. However, it is still advisable to carry a reasonable amount of local currency for those instances where cash is required, such as street kiosks, public transit tickets, or establishments that do not accept cards. Additionally, it is prudent to have some emergency cash on hand for unforeseen circumstances.

Researching the payment preferences of your destination ahead of time is crucial, as some countries still heavily rely on cash for daily transactions. For example, while the Netherlands has embraced card payments, neighboring Germany is still predominantly cash-based. By understanding your destination’s payment landscape, you can make informed decisions about whether to rely more on cards or cash during your trip.

Navigating Exchange Rates and Avoiding Scams

When traveling to a country with a different currency, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the local exchange rate. This knowledge safeguards you from falling prey to unscrupulous vendors looking to exploit unwary travelers. However, keep in mind that exchange rates provided online or in apps are approximations and not necessarily what you will get from banks or ATMs.

Fortunately, there are tools to help you with easy conversions. Currency conversion apps on your phone or using Google’s automatic exchange rate calculator can give you real-time conversions on the go. Additionally, memorizing a few basic conversions, such as the equivalent of $1, $5, and $10 in the local currency, can serve as a helpful mental reference when evaluating prices.

Tips for Getting the Best Exchange Rate

While it is challenging to obtain the exact exchange rate listed online or in apps from banks or ATMs due to additional fees, there are strategies to improve your chances of getting a favorable rate.

If paying by card, always choose to pay in the local currency when given the option. This way, your own bank or card company will handle the currency conversion, typically resulting in a better rate than the one offered by the card terminal.

When using ATMs to withdraw cash, opt for those located in local banks instead of third-party ATMs. Local bank ATMs typically offer lower fees and better exchange rates.

Choosing a bank and account type wisely can also save you money. Some banks offer features tailored for frequent travelers, such as waiving ATM fees on foreign withdrawals or lower currency conversion fees. Consider opening a checking account with a travel-friendly bank before your trip.

However, in certain situations, the convenience and urgency of obtaining local cash may outweigh the desire for the best exchange rate. In such cases, withdrawing from an ATM at the airport is an acceptable option, despite the potentially higher fees.

Exchanging Cash – Dos and Don’ts

While cash exchange points are dwindling in prevalence, they still exist and can be useful for acquiring small amounts of cash or disposing of spare currency before leaving a country. To ensure a fair exchange, always have a rough idea of the amount of local currency you should receive.

Exercise caution when using exchange offices located in tourist-heavy areas such as airports and train stations. Ask for the rate before handing over any money to avoid potential scams or unfavorable rates.

Avoid exchanging currency with strangers in public, especially if they offer rates that seem too good to be true. Such encounters are often attempts to pass counterfeit or fake currency.

Special Considerations for Non-Local Currency Payments

In some circumstances, certain countries accept non-local currencies for convenience. For example, American dollars in Canada/Mexico or euros in Poland or the Czech Republic. However, individual merchants have the prerogative to accept or reject non-local currencies.

When non-local currency payments are accepted, they often come with a poor exchange rate, and change is given in the local currency. While this is not a scam, it serves as a convenience fee for accepting non-local cash. Thus, it is advisable to use local currency for payment, unless in emergency situations or when the additional cost is inconsequential.

Denominations – The Importance of Small Notes

If you choose to exchange cash before your trip, it is common to receive large denomination notes. However, upon arrival, many establishments, including automatic machines and shops, only accept smaller denomination notes.

To avoid inconvenience, request a mix of large and small denomination notes when withdrawing cash. Moreover, it is wise to keep small denomination notes towards the end of your trip, especially when visiting countries you plan to return to in the future.


Solo travel provides incredible opportunities for personal growth and exploration, but managing finances abroad requires careful consideration. By striking the right balance between card and cash payments, understanding exchange rates, and following our tips on obtaining the best rates, you can confidently navigate the complex world of paying abroad.

Remember, preparation is key, so familiarize yourself with the payment landscape of your destination and plan accordingly. With these insights in hand, you can embark on your solo adventure with peace of mind and financial security!